Antecedents and consequences of unlearning in new product development teams

Akgun A. E. , Lynn G. S. , Byrne J.

JOURNAL OF PRODUCT INNOVATION MANAGEMENT, vol.23, no.1, pp.73-88, 2006 (Journal Indexed in SCI) identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 23 Issue: 1
  • Publication Date: 2006
  • Doi Number: 10.1111/j.1540-5885.2005.00182.x
  • Page Numbers: pp.73-88


Unlearning, which first appeared almost 30 years ago as a subprocess of the organizational learning process, has received only limited attention in the literature. Rather than building on empirical research, the existing scholarship is largely anecdotal, aimed at reviewing the literature and generating new insights. Further, unlearning studies tend to analyze the organizational level and neglect smaller units such as work groups and teams. To address this gap in the understanding of unlearning, this article empirically investigates unlearning in work groups in general and new product development (NPD) teams in particular. This study, based on the literature of organizational memory and change, operationalized team unlearning as changes in beliefs and routines during team-based projects and then discussed the importance of unlearning behavior in NPD teams. Specifically it was argued that unlearning guards beliefs and routines against rigidity to cope with environmental turbulence. This is of particular note when rigid product development procedures and group beliefs inhibit the reception and evaluation of new market and technology information and reduce the value of perceived new information. To test the antecedents and consequences of the team unlearning model, 319 NPD teams were investigated. Using structural equation modeling, it was found that (1) team crisis and anxiety have a direct impact on team unlearning; (2) environmental turbulence also has a direct impact on both team crisis and anxiety and team unlearning; and (3) after team beliefs and project routines have changed, implementing new knowledge or information positively affects new product success. Specifically, the findings revealed that changes in team members' collective beliefs in accordance with environmental changes and the in-process planning or adjustment of project work activities and procedures as the projects evolve enable teams to develop and launch new products successfully. Also, results indicated that team crisis and anxiety in NPD projects assist team members in revising their previous beliefs and routines when project teams are performing in turbulent environments. This article suggests that managers can enhance team unlearning by (1) creating a sense of urgency by introducing an artificial crisis; and (2) avoiding the groupthink phenomena by bringing in an outsider to challenge existing policies and procedures, and training the team on lateral thinking. In addition, managers can plan project activities in a flexible manner that allows changes as the project evolves to facilitate team unlearning. However, managers should also be cautious when promoting team unlearning. Without careful and considerable evaluation, change in beliefs and routines can cause information/knowledge loss.